Last Sunday I took part in a protest here in New York City that you probably read about, marching with a loosely organized, unrehearsed pickup band playing a mix of improvisations, classic marching songs ("When the Saints Come Marching In") and old protest songs (Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up"). No songs, though, specifically addressed the issues at hand. Why? Because we didn't know any that did. To the extent that there exists a unified cultural movement in opposition to the Iraq war and to the policies of George W. Bush, it is a movement without an anthem. What excited other protesters the most was our rousing rendition of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On."
Protest songs, I think it's fair to say, are out of vogue, despite the perhaps unprecedented number of politically motivated concerts, tours and recordings over the last year. The desire to get George W. Bush out of office has mobilized musicians and artists like nothing else since, possibly, Vietnam. Artists who previously never felt a need to are making their political views public and taking very partisan stands, as Bruce Springsteen did recently in the New York Times. And yet, despite all this political involvement, few high-profile musicians are writing explicitly political songs. There have been flurries of excitement and press coverage each time a famous musician releases a protest song, precisely because it remains so unusual.
In the majority of the anti-Bush concerts I've attended, the Bush bashing has occurred during the in-between song banter, not in the songs themselves. Even on the recent "Future Soundtrack for America," a CD to benefit MoveOn.org and other organizations -- featuring a very impressive lineup including David Byrne, R.E.M, Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips and more -- surprisingly few of the songs are explicitly political. (Full disclosure: I appear on the compilation as the keyboardist in Mike Doughty's band.) Similarly, few of the songs posted on the Web site for Music for America, a large and well-organized nonprofit dedicated to political action through music, are protest songs. Many high-profile musicians are lending their time and fame to support their political beliefs. Relatively few are writing songs that directly articulate those beliefs.
I had encountered so few recent protest songs when I set out to write this column a week ago that I was worried I wouldn't be able to find enough of them. How foolish of me! The Internet is teeming with them, if you only look. There were so many protest songs readily available that it made me start to take seriously for the first time the complaint I'd heard from a number of politically oriented musicians: that their music was ignored simply because it was political. But then I started listening to the songs. This music isn't ignored because it's political. It's ignored because it's bad. Dreadful, actually. I don't think I've ever listened to so much bad music in one week. If I were in a meaner mood I'd devote this column to the very worst songs I encountered this week, and we'd all have a good time -- bad protest songs are a terrific source of unintentional humor. If you're in the mood to laugh, just Google "protest song" and "Iraq war" and "George W." and you'll find plenty of specimens that are delicious in their awfulness.
But I wanted to spotlight the best protest songs. (Among the most exhaustive compilations on the Web is Protest Records, the product of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Chris Habib.) Some of the following songs I like, some I think are genuinely great, and some I don't plan to ever listen to again. But they're worth your attention -- and they're all free, including five exclusive tracks offered just to Salon readers -- so listen and choose for yourself.
One thing I discovered this week is that, as a form, the protest song is stuck in the '60s. It's astonishing how many songs that I listened to were written in a faux '60s folk-revival sound, and as someone who thinks the folk revival was bad enough the first time around, it wasn't a pleasant listening experience. There are more second-rate early Bob Dylan wannabes in the world than anyone should have to know about (mercifully, Joan Baez clones are rare). I have little interest in these folk-revival revivalists, but for educational purposes, I'll include two of them: Dan Bern ("Bush Must Be Defeated," free download) and Stephan Smith ("The Bell," with Pete Seeger, Mary Harris and Dean Ween, free download) are the two best-known of the current protest-oriented folk singers, and while I'm not fond of their music, I admire both their politics and their passion.
It's nice that John Mellencamp came out with a protest song -- few would dare to impugn the patriotism of an all-American heartland rocker -- but unfortunately he got bit by the folkie bug too: The clumsy, dippy "To Washington" (free download) has to be one of his worst songs.
Folk music still has some good protest-song writers, though, perhaps chief among them Billy Bragg. "The Price of Oil" (free download) is simple, direct and packed with information, with no pretense of being poetic or lyrical, but somehow it doesn't come across as clumsy or preachy, or even overly dry -- how he does it I don't know, but I wish there were more like him.
Loudon Wainwright III relies on his customary good-humored, wry wit to attack the president on "Presidents Day" (free download): "George was the first one, Abe was the best/ Libraries and airports named after the rest/ But this year I'm queasy about President's Day/ Cause there's been more than one George, I'm sorry to say."
"Revenge" (free download), the title song from the new record by Brian McTear's Bitter, Bitter Weeks, is neither humorous nor informative, but it is very powerful, a dark and chilling song that speaks of "a country once callous in victory, now ferocious in defeat."
Some artists who don't want to write a protest song themselves, but still wish to express their defiance musically, chose to cover older protest songs that are still relevant. Three covers that I found this week stood out: Jim O'Rourke and Glenn Kotche's cover of Bill Fay's "Pictures of Adolf" (free download), Thurston Moore and Mike Watt's cover of Tom Rapp's "Fourth Day of July" (free download), and Scott Amendola and Carla Bozulich's ferocious version of Dylan's "Masters of War" (free download).
Jazz, hip-hop and lots of rock
Thankfully, not everyone writing protest songs is a folk musician, and not all modern protest songs exist so completely under the shadows of their '60s counterparts.
Rickie Lee Jones was kind enough to offer Salon an exclusive download of "Ugly Man" (Salon exclusive free download), a smooth pop-jazz waltz with sweet harmonies that belies the ferocity of its attack on President Bush.
Saul Williams shouts out a "Pledge of Resistance" in his poetry slam rap on "Not in Our Name" (free download): "We pledge resistance, we pledge alliance with those who have come under attack for voicing opposition to the war or for their religion or ethnicity."
Ex-Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach De La Rocha teams up with DJ Shadow, and turns his rage on Bush in the fierce, frightening "March of Death" (free download): "Here it comes the sound of terror from above/ He flex his Texas twisted tongue/ The poor lined up to kill in desert slums/ For oil that burns beneath the desert sun/ Now we spit flame to flip this game/ We are his targets taking aim."
If the anger is getting to you, try the relatively easygoing "Jacob's Ladder" (free download), by Chumbawamba. That the song is so smooth and musically genial makes its eventual indictment of Bush all the more shocking and effective: "Puppy dog leader/ Sooner or later/ We'll dig up your cellar/ And try you for murder."
Jonatha Brooke wrote "War" (free download) just after the Gulf War, but gave it to Protest Records to post as part of their anti-Iraq war campaign, feeling it was just as relevant today in its description of America's bullying relationship with the rest of the world: "It's the American way, the new world order/ We hold these truths to be self evident/ In the American day you must give and I shall take/ And I will tell you what is moral and what is just/ Because I want, because I will/ Because I can, so will I kill."
Le Tigre, the queens of agit-pop, have released a video for their song "New Kicks" (free video download), an anthemic dance-pop track that uses samples of antiwar speeches by Susan Sarandon, Al Sharpton and others.
Marc Anthony Thompson (aka Chocolate Genius) covers Jimi Hendrix's "Bold as Love" (free download) in a live performance at Tonic, and turns it into an anti-Bush song with the simplest of substitutions ("Just ask the axis" becomes "Go back to Texas"). Oh yeah, that's me quietly playing the piano in the background.
If you like protest of a more abstract variety, try George W. Bush and Matt Rogalsky's "Two Minutes Fifty Seconds Silence for the USA" (free download), which comes with this artist's statement by Rogalsky: "A distillation of George W. Bush's address to the world on March 17 2003, in which he gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of town. Using my own software, I removed his voice from the 13+ minute speech, leaving only his 'silences.' The thumping sounds you hear, which a number of people have taken to be a reference to 'drums of war,' are simply the reverberations of Bush's voice inside the White House."
Xiu Xiu's "Support Our Troops, Oh! (Black Angels, Oh!)" (Salon exclusive free download) is, to me, the most potent and intense of all the protest songs I found, so I'm particularly thrilled that the band gave Salon permission to post it. While most protest songs, however angry and intense, are content to tell people things they've already thought and heard and believe in, this one aims to shock, to force you to rethink. The lyrics, in their entirety: "Did you know you were going to shoot off the top of a four-year-old girl's head, And look across her car-seat down into her skull, And see into her throat, And did you know that her dad would say to you 'Please, sir, can I take her body home?' Oh wait, you totally did know that that would happen, Cuz you're a jock who was too stupid and too greedy and too unmotivated to do anything else but still be the biggest, and still do what other people tell you to do. You did it to still be a winner. You shot your grenade launcher into people's windows and into the doors of people's houses, but you wanted to shoot it into someone, just to watch them blow up."
Subtle jabs, from some very special guests
When I started work on this protest song column, I sent out the word to some friends asking for contributions. I'm very grateful that three of them responded by recording songs and getting them to me on a few days' notice. Oren Bloedow (of Elysian Fields) sent in "Jose's Christmas Trees" (Salon exclusive free download ), following a subtle and touching invocation of 9/11 with a call for peace; Yuka Honda, with some help from Sean Lennon, recorded "God Bless America" (Salon exclusive free download), which attacks with irony and fake smiles; Ryland Bouchard (of "The Robot Ate Me" ) sent "What Warriors Sing" (Salon exclusive free download) with an eloquent antiwar chorus (sung in that inimitable voice) that he tells me is based on a line from Virgil: "Life is a hoarse brazen note that warriors sing/ A song that mocks the war's broken call/ Love is a hoarse brazen note that pleads to the kings/ A sound that mocks the wars they bring." All three songs protest obliquely, subtly, stretching the idea of the protest song past its usual boundaries. The idea can be stretched even further.
One of the songs on the Protest Records site, "Maybe Not" (free download), by Cat Power (Chan Marshall), is a protest song only in the most broad, abstract sense of the term. It has a simple, hopeful message: "We can all be free/ Maybe not with words/ Maybe not with a look/ But with your mind."
A song need not take on the specific political issues of the day to be a protest song. In fact, the further you stretch the idea of a protest song, the closer you get to my own philosophy: that all good art is a protest, that all good art is by nature moral, and rebels against all that is not. In that sense, maybe "Mache Dich, mein herze, rein," (the bass aria from near the end of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion"), the happiest piece of music I know, is the ultimate protest song. Or maybe it's "Get Ur Freak On."
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Think I missed a great new protest song? Tell us about it in the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.